The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 5

Issues in Old-Time Music

The Other End of the Microphone

By Bruce Doan

A fellow folk music enthusiast and radio broadcaster recently passed me a copy of Hank Bradley’s article, "Too Loud Enough?" from the spring 2000 OTH. I was both astounded and dismayed to hear about some of the painful experiences that Hank described as an acoustic musician at the mercy of sound systems and sound engineers (knobsters as he called them).

I must agree that the nuances of folk music are often lost to bad equipment, bad rooms and all too often, to mix engineers "without ears." Hank, I feel for you and your fellow musicians. That’s why I am a sound engineer. Let’s just say that my first impulse to "tune it" was in response to my pain and suffering from too loud, too harsh, awful mixes of some otherwise wonderful musicians. As I gained more experience in fine tuning rooms and sound systems, my motivation moved solidly in the direction of serving the audience and the players.

Let’s face it, sound reinforcement should be just that: amplify the things that would otherwise be lost, tune out the bad resonance of the mics, the room and the speakers, and blend all the components to sound as natural as they would in your living room or around the campfire. The sound system should be transparent. It should totally disappear. The musicians should be able to hear what they need in the stage monitor speakers and have them just loud enough to mask the delayed sound that bounces off the back wall of the theater or concert hall. In the case of a dance or festival, the monitors may need to be loud enough to drown out the distraction of the crowd noise. In an acoustically well behaved room or on an outdoor stage, this may be easy to accomplish. But in my 18 years of sound mixing for live events, I can honestly say, "It ain’t that simple." I have seen and heard a few great rooms, many good rooms, and all too often, bad rooms.

First, I’ll talk about the rooms, then the equipment, and last but not least, about the plucker on the other end of that Martin Box.

Coffee Houses: a delicate, intimate atmosphere where the audience is often so close to the stage that there is no place to put speaker stands, the stage (if there is one) rings out like a big bass drum and the cappuccino machine (or the telephone) is as loud as anything on stage. Your assignment (mix guy) is to make some semblance of harmony out of the house mix while keeping the monitors (if you have room for them) quiet enough so as not to muddy up the house mix. It is amazing how many otherwise great mixes are ruined by not finely tuning the monitors. Whatever you put up on stage for the musicians to hear bounces neatly off the wall and out into the audience. Hot Tip: If the mix sounds muddy or boomy and you can’t EQ it out of the main mix, it is almost certainly coming from the monitors. Don’t give the guitarist (or vocalist) as much bass as they want in the monitors until you have added in the house mix. This is especially true in small rooms. The sound on stage and in the audience is the sum total of all the sound sources.

Small concert halls: If you ever played the Freight and Salvage in the early ’90s, you will know what a bad room can be like. Concrete walls, no padding, wood floor, high ceiling and house speakers big enough for an auditorium. Yet, with sufficient patience and a really good set of graphic equalizers you can tune the room to sound good. Actually, I once did just what Hank suggested and disconnected one (of the two) huge sub-woofers.

In bad rooms of all sorts, the selection of speakers is of supreme importance. If they throw too long (far), the sound just splats up against the back wall and the entire audience hears a reverberant mix. If they throw too wide (hi-fi type dome tweeters are the worst), the sound gets lost and the back half of the room heard nothing but mud. Selection and placement of speakers, time spent tuning out the resonances of the room and when necessary, judicious placement of curtains or sound absorbing material can make the difference between a stellar performance and sheer hell.

Don’t wait until the musicians have taken to the stage to tune in the sound system. Get there early, take your time, and don’t skimp on equipment to make the show work. This doesn’t mean big and loud! I have often scrapped the house speakers in favor of my little EV S100s. If the lowest note is the guitar and the room is less than 40 feet deep, small speakers work great. In a bigger hall, horn loaded systems may be necessary to get even dispersion of the sound to the entire audience. Believe me, the art and science of sound reinforcement is far more than merely twisting a few knobs until it sounds good. First and foremost, it requires knowing what the music is supposed to sound like. Knowing the interactions of the sound system components is an art in itself. Working around inadequate and damaged components (walking into an unknown venue), getting realistic stage plots from the band and generally planning ahead makes for a workable show.

Most of all, mixing acoustic music takes ears. A great mix means being able to hear resonances and potential feedback before it is noticeable to the audience or the performers. It means anticipating the mic technique of performers when they are singing and when they are talking. Listening carefully throughout an entire performance is hard work.

Big halls are a particular challenge. I have never had the luxury of a stage-side monitor mix engineer and always mix monitors from the front of house. Keeping eye contact with the musicians and understanding their needs (at a distance) is often not so easy. Whenever possible, I work out some sort of silent language with the performers so that the audience is not constantly involved in verbal requests for, "a little more of this, or a little less of that in the monitors."

Dance halls are even more of a headache. With respect to "Too Loud Enough," 100 or more dancing and shouting people is a lot of noise to keep up with. Things can get too loud in a hurry and standing on a chair to keep in touch with the stage is not uncommon. Keeping sound levels from becoming blistering out front is hard, especially if the musicians keep asking for more stage volume to overcome the crowd noise. I have seen times where supposedly acoustic bands get so much volume on stage that turning off the house speakers makes no perceptible difference. I have also taken to using two sets of speakers, one at the front of the hall and another halfway back, especially at large contra dances to keep the intelligibility high and the volume at a reasonable level.

What I think Hank was talking about in his article was the unfortunate situation of the folk musician (what’s folk music?) being at the mercy of sound engineers whose ears and experience are limited to loud, electric music. While butt-kicking blues or rock ’n roll is great for a night of dancing, the sound levels are never appropriate for acoustic music. Hank, I can only say, make friends with or train a good friend to be a sound engineer, feed them well and have them follow you around. I have never failed to step aside when a musician or band brings their own engineer to a show. Speak to the producers in advance and request a mix engineer with acoustic experience. When all else fails, stop quietly at the beginning of the set and in the presence of the audience say, "Could we please bring the volume down a whole lot."

Unfortunately, failure to understand sound systems is not limited to the small end of the microphone. I have often joked about writing a primer called Microphone Stands Made Simple: An Instructional for Folk Musicians, but I also believe that mastering the mysteries and subtleties of working with a sound system is possible for anyone.

Let’s assume that you are working in a club or concert hall that does have monitor speakers on stage and a competent sound engineer (it does happen). Here are a few things that you should know.

No amount of skill on the part of the sound engineer can make up for inattention on the part of the musician to the fact that they are playing into a microphone. Listen to the monitor speakers. Do a complete sound check and ask for what you need to be able to hear yourself. If things are crowded on stage, try compromising a bit from your ideal vision of how things should be for a set-up that works. Not everything needs to be in the monitors. A banjo with a resonator will most likely carry without much amplification, so back away from the mic when you are not soloing. Same goes for the mandolin and the guitar when you are playing backup and not single note leads. Reduce the volume of those things in the mix to make room for others. Learn how to "work the mic." Larry Sparks had an interesting technique where he would move the guitar as much as several feet from the mic and then zoom in to bring up the volume when needed.

Some instruments are not very loud. I have had trouble with mandolins and guitars that sound great when played solo but get lost immediately when the rest of the band comes in. Put a foam windscreen on the mic (to prevent klak) and get right up close. Learn where the sweet spot (tonally) is on your instrument and don’t wander off mic. Nothing invites feedback more than making the mix engineer reach for more gain to make up for an instrument that is too far from the mic. If you still have trouble being heard, maybe it’s time for that dreaded pickup. When equalized properly for the instrument and used judiciously, pickups can actually sound good. I personally prefer the control and tone of a well-placed microphone out in front of the instrument.

Some guitars, on the other hand, are heavy on the bottom end and sound awful if you get the mic too close to the sound hole. Take a few extra minutes to check out the overall response of the instrument, microphone room, and sound system. Listen carefully in the sound check and prevent a lot of suffering later in the set. If possible, don’t change positions on stage during the set so that the different voices and instruments, which have already been tuned into a specific mic, won’t have to be re-equalized.

From the perspective of the person behind the sound board, it is amazing how much easier it is to work with seasoned musicians who know how to use a sound system. Less experienced bands make you struggle through the entire set trying to keep them on mic and tune them in. Sometimes, it never happens.

Bruce Doan is the host of "Folk Plus," Friday 10-noon PST on KVMR FM in Nevada City, CA (on the Web at www.kvmr.org). He has spent many years as a technical facilitator for a variety of non-profit community groups. In Worcester, MA he was given the honorary title of "The People’s Technician." He is currently working as a design engineer and is chained to a bench at High Sierra Electronics. You can e-mail him at bdoan@highsierraelectronics.com

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